As many of you know I frequently work as a background actor for many of the television shows filmed in Chicago. (Fun fact, production is pretty adamant on abandoning the term “extra” and using “background actor” or “background artist.” Pretty cool, huh? #TheMoreYouKnow).
Anyway, I was on set the other day for a rather long, extensive scene, which we worked for about 16 hours. This was one of my first gigs for 2017 and although I started the new year with tremendous vigor, feeling totally empowered, somehow my enthusiasm for the year ahead began to dwindle and it ironically happened to occur while I was on set.
I was waiting while crew set up for a shot and just letting my thoughts wander and much to my chagrin, they went to a dark place. I started to feel hopeless and somewhat pathetic thinking about the future of my career. I ended 2016 on a great note with some exciting prospects for 2017, but since the new year, everything’s taken its time getting started, which results in a lot of frustration and anxiety on my end. I watched the stars of this show who were physically so close to me yet their status & success so far from me and just felt like I was hit with a brick. What am I doing? What am I thinking? I must be insane to think I can get from here, working in background, auditioning with hundreds if not thousands of other hopefuls, doing small photo shoots here and there and think that I can get THERE, to the entertainment promised land. I felt stuck. I felt daunted and afraid by my dreams and doubt crept in. And once I started on that line of thought I couldn’t stop. I began to panic. To the cast and crew I probably looked cool, calm and collected but on the inside my heart was pounding and my pulse racing as I allowed myself to ponder statistically my chances of making this a viable career. I’m an optimist through and through and thus felt surprised to be feeling such dismay.
I’m standing there, silently imploding and a crew head walks over to me out of the blue and says, “Hello!”
Now for anyone who does background, you know you essentially don’t exist. You’re a set piece helping create the tone and atmosphere for the production. And you also know you cannot speak with any crew or cast member unless they initiate a conversation. So imagine my surprise when this department head (I’m being vague with titles just in case) approached me on set.
Upon his greeting I instantly snapped out of my mental, downward spiral. We small talked for a bit but then he launched into a story about how his career started.
“I’ve been working in production for a while. But for years many of the shows I worked on failed. I don’t know why, hopefully it wasn’t my presence, but they failed. And one day I found myself without anything lined up. I began calling show after show asking for a job. No one had anything. I spent days, weeks searching and pleading and had nothing. I reached out to this show for the pilot and they rejected me. So I just let it go for a bit and then production called me back and asked me to join their crew. And now I’m coming up on four years with this show.
“I was grateful for the job, as anyone would be, although when they called me it was for a low man on the totem pole kind of job. I was a dolly grip, so I just pushed the camera where it needed to go. And again I tried to promote myself. I asked for more responsibility, and told production I wanted to move up, that I could do more. Again, no positive response. So finally I said. ‘Ok. You know what. I’m here as a dolly grip. That’s it. But I’m going to be the best damn dolly grip this production has ever seen.’ And then, boom. They had an opening for a head position and they offered it to me.
“So it’s a tough grind sometimes. You have to put your whole body and heart into the work. Be persistent, stay dedicated and have patience. And sometimes you just have to step back and let the universe do its thing.”
By the time he finished his story, crew was set up and we were ready to continue filming. So he said his farewell and headed back to work. But the spontaneity of this conversation and the message behind it left me stunned and chilled long after it ended. Hearing this man’s story of perseverance and passion was exactly what I needed in that moment. This man doesn’t know anything about me; not my name, nor that I’m an aspiring actor. (Although I’m sure the crew assume most background actors are somewhat affiliated with the arts.) He shared his story on a total whim completely unprovoked by me. But I’m forever grateful that he did.
This whole exchange reminds me of author Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech from 2012 in which he mentions how beginning a career is often like sending out messages in a bottle and hoping someone will find your message and write back. While it might be easier to blame the other party for not picking your bottle, it’s the repetition that leads to successfully having a message received. Sheer grit and focus even when nothing comes drifting back, and above all trusting that eventually something will come from your effort. Acknowledge that you must do everything in your power to make it happen and never relent on that commitment. But also acknowledge that timing plays a role as well, and while it may sound cheesy to say, one must allow the universe time to respond. Learn to trust that your bottle will be picked at the exact moment it’s meant to.
This bout of radio silence leads most people to falter and compromise. Based on my observations, many reach this point and consider it the end. Consider it a failed attempt at making something happen, despite having come so far. On the contrary, I believe it is the beginning. As Eric Thomas says, “You must outlast your old you long enough to get to your new you.” This is that moment. And this experience affirmed that truth for me…especially since within the twenty-four hours following this conversation I got an audition and a booking. (Eerie, right?)
So wherever you are, whatever you’re striving toward, if you’re feeling panicked, stuck and hopeless, don’t give up on yourself. Just breathe. Trust yourself and your abilities. Keep grinding and let the universe do its thing.